More youth are identifying as ‘pansexual.’ Here’s what the term means.

"Being pansexual, to me, is loving someone for their soul and connecting on a level that isn’t directly physical."

Make the Road NY, a community activism center, holds a block party called Bushwick Pride for the local lesbian, gay, bi, pan, and trans youth of the neighborhood on July 15, 2017 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Make the Road NY, a community activism center, holds a block party called Bushwick Pride for the local lesbian, gay, bi, pan, and trans youth of the neighborhood on July 15, 2017 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

No, it’s not a sexual attraction to cooking vessels, nor is it simply some newfangled term the kids are using these days.

Pansexuality, loosely defined as attraction to all genders, is an identity label that a significant portion of the LGBTQ community has adopted in recent years. According to Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) 2017 LGBTQ Teen Survey, the number of youth who identify as pansexual has doubled since 2012, with 14 percent of youth respondents embracing the descriptor and 34 percent identifying as bisexual. A similar HRC survey in 2012 reported only 7 percent of individuals identifying as pansexual, while 38 percent identified as bisexual.

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The term has also seen a recent surge in visibility from celebrities like Janelle Monae, Miley Cyrus, Angel Haze, Sara Ramirez, Sia, and others who proudly embrace the label and the fluidity it represents.

Janelle Monae attends the Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City.  (Credit: Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)
Janelle Monae attends the Gala at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018 in New York City. (Credit: Dia Dipasupil/WireImage)

But the increase in the use of “pansexuality” as an identifier isn’t simply a fad. It demonstrates the dramatic shift in recent years toward greater visibility of LGBTQ people in general — and more fluid identities in particular — and the ways that each new generation of LGBTQ youth is remaking our ideas of gender and sexuality to better reflect their identities and lived experiences.

Like many of the queer pioneers honored during Pride month — such as Sylvia Rivera, the trans bi+ woman of color who started the 1969 Stonewall Riots that Pride commemorates — pansexual people are challenging dominant narratives about sexuality, gender, love, attraction, relationships, and identity, and breaking down barriers that separate us from each other and our own authentic selves.

“Being a queer black woman in America,” Monae told Rolling Stone earlier this year, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” Although Monae initially identified as bisexual, “later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I’m open to learning more about who I am.”

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Monae’s sentiments echo my own experience with the term as a person who has identified as bisexual for nearly two decades. In recent years, I have also embraced the terms “queer” and “pansexual” to describe attraction that, for me, transcends all boundaries of gender and sexuality.

Pansexuality, rooted in the Greek pan, meaning “all” or “every,” has long been considered a part of the so-called “bisexual umbrella,” along with non-monosexual identity labels like fluid, queer, or heteroflexible, which indicate attraction that exists between or outside of both heterosexuality and lesbian or gay identity. Related terms, like panromantic or biromantic, serve to further specify differences between romantic and sexual attraction.

As pansexuality has gained visibility in recent years, some have described the term as a rejection of the label “bisexual,” arguing that the latter indicates attraction to only male and female genders and excludes non-binary and transgender people. Some have even called bisexual identity transphobic, which raises vehement objections among both bi- and pan-identified community leaders.

Faith Cheltenham, vice president of the advocacy organization BiNet USA, finds those descriptions, “repugnant, irresponsible, yet understandable considering the widespread misinformation campaign against bisexuality going back decades.” Cheltenham told ThinkProgress, “As a person who identifies as pansexual and bisexual, I’m openly flaunting my attractions to more than one group of people, while also expressing and loving myself through a pansexual lens that feels different for me, ‘free-ass motherfuckering’ if you will, when it comes to my expression and experience of my own gender-queerness and of myself as an intersex woman and femme,” she continued, invoking Monae’s phrase.

Within the bisexual community, many like myself and Cheltenham claim the “pansexual” label in addition to, not instead of, bisexual and other identity terms.

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“It kinda found me to be honest,” said 19-year-old student activist A.D., who identifies as bisexual, queer, and panromantic. “I had always felt, as a queer person, that the way I feel is the way everyone feels and then someone tells me of a word that describes me perfectly and I’m like ‘yeah that is exactly right.’ Bisexuality means attraction to two or more gender identities and being panromantic just feels like the natural companion to my sexual identity. It just feels like a given, you know?”

Even so, personal accounts like Monae’s interview and recent studies suggest that younger non-monosexual people may prefer “pansexual” for its deliberate, purposeful inclusion of those who identify as non-binary, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, or other terms outside of male or female identities, a group that has also gained greater visibility in recent years.

“Being pansexual, to me, is loving someone for their soul and connecting on a level that isn’t directly physical,” 25-year-old Emily Getsay told ThinkProgress. Getsay, a community social justice organizer and president of the Women’s Caucus for Art of Georgia, identifies as pansexual and polyamorous. She said she “adopted the term ‘pan’ when I realized I didn’t fit into the bisexual binary. Pansexual meant that my sexuality could be more fluid and encompass gender non-binary people and genderqueer people.”

Getsay’s statement reflects unfortunate tensions between bi and pan identities, as this idea of bisexuality as binary is a widespread misconception, and the bisexual community has a long history of including many gender and sexual identities. Bi advocates have historically described ourselves as attracted to more than one gender, or to our own gender and different genders.

“It’s hella frustrating when bi, pan, queer and fluid — or what we call ‘bi+’ people — don’t know the community’s history, that national bisexual magazines ran with a manifesto way back in 1991 clearly stating there were more than two genders decades ago. It’s important that we get into dialogue though, generate our own conferences, awards and national conversations, and help people understand that bisexuality and pansexuality aren’t opposing factions.”

Despite these tensions, pansexual and bisexual identities are on the rise among youth and several recent studies have found marked increases in the percentages of people reporting same-sex experiences and bisexual identities.

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Cheltenham, who contributed to HRC’s 2012 youth report, finds these numbers deeply encouraging, pointing out that they suggest, not a rejection of bisexuality, but a reality that fewer and fewer people are identifying as straight.

“I’m ecstatic to see that the numbers for bi youth held steady while there was a notable increase in pansexual identifying youth. This means we’re doing our job increasing visibility and awareness, and with more dedicated resources, we will do it even better,” she said.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that among the 2,200 non-heterosexual adults surveyed, “Those adopting pansexual identities were younger than those adopting lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities, and those adopting queer and pansexual identities were more likely to be noncisgender [transgender] than cisgender, and more likely to be cisgender women than men.”

In other words, pansexual identity appears to be particularly prevalent among younger people who have grown up in a world where sexual and gender fluidity have become increasingly visible and accepted. For this generation of LGBTQ youth, compulsory heterosexuality has been replaced with identities that firmly and resoundingly reject boundaries in place of inclusivity.

The growing popularity of pansexuality, then, is in many ways the logical and beautiful culmination of the tireless efforts of generations of LGBTQ advocates to live authentically and create spaces for ourselves, our relationships, and our families.  

Beth Sherouse is a writer and activist based in Atlanta.